What if Series 11 sucks?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t want Series 11 to suck. Maybe, by the tone of everything I’ve written about Chris Chibnall, Series 11 and the Thirteenth Doctor so far, you might be under the impression that I’d be privately happy if Series 11 crashed and burned. Only then, you might think I might be thinking, will Doctor Who’s powers that be realise their folly and put Doctor Who right. Nope. I don’t want Series 11 to suck. I don’t even think it will suck. I think there’s every chance it will be a great, roaring success. But I think there’s equally a chance that it could suck. A bit like Brexit, the thing could go either way, and it’s really difficult, at this point, to predict which way.

The key thing is Chris Chibnall’s apparent willingness to be bold. There’s no more conspicuous evidence of this than his decision to regenerate Peter Capaldi into Jodie Whittaker, but most recently we’ve learned that Chibnall had cast out all of Moffat’s people and brought in an entirely new batch of people to write, direct, produce and set to music Doctor Who. Even before the sex of the Thirteenth Doctor had been revealed, we knew that Chibnall was seriously toying with radical ideas to shake up Doctor Who’s format (before settling for probably the least interesting possibility of a series of ten single episode stories). If nothing else, this tells us that the person in whose vision Series 11 will be molded wants to do Doctor Who differently to how it’s been done, at the very least, in recent memory. That means being bold.

Boldness is good. Boldness is the opposite of timidity, predictability and staleness. Boldness is the opposite of boring. If there’s something Doctor Who should never be, it’s stale and predictable and boring. Doctor Who is supposed to be the antidote to staleness in television. It’s supposed to be bold and daring and it’s supposed to set the imagination aflame and do something radically different from the usual bland diet of undifferentiated soap operas and detective dramas. If a show about an immortal alien who can go anywhere in time and space isn’t going to be bold, then what exactly is the point of it?

To be candid, if Chris Chibnall really is trying to make a clean break from what Doctor Who has been for the last thirteen years successively under Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat and blaze an exciting new direction for the show, then I’m broadly in support of the Chris Chibnall “project” in boldness. I think he has the right idea in this respect, because it really has come time for Doctor Who to reinvent itself.

I adored Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who, but I’m not an average member of the audience. Under Moffat, the show was steadily losing viewers and increasingly becoming a cult fandom. Simply put, people had become bored with Doctor Who, bored of seeing the same thing every week. Bored of the bloody Daleks all the time. The characters may change every couple of years, but the show basically stays the same, and had stayed basically the same since it returned to the screen with what was then a new lick of paint in 2005. Steven Moffat did a lot differently from Russell T Davies, but the Doctor Who he made was still basically the same show that Davies made, and an average member of the audience, the valorised “casual viewer”, who didn’t know who Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat were, wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between Davies’ Doctor Who and Moffat’s Doctor Who.

In Moffat’s final years, he seemed to recognise that the general audience was growing bored of Doctor Who, and he played increasingly to the fandom — people like me — rather than vainly trying to appeal to a broad general audience (although there was a last gasp attempt at doing this in Series 10).

Ironically, I think the female Doctor decision looks more like a symptom of Doctor Who’s crisis of staleness than anything resembling genuine boldness. Here is a show that had been making basically the same twelve episodes every year since 2005 and which people were increasingly becoming bored of. The big, scary “cancellation” word was being thrown around with more and more seriousness. To remedy the problem of staleness, Doctor Who could sit down and think about how it could reinvent itself to return anew and regenerated, like it did in 2005, or, alternatively, it could perform a cosmetic but attention-grabbing change, like changing the Doctor’s gender, which would buy it a couple more years to continue going on making the same 12 episodes every year as before, just with a woman playing the Doctor now instead of a man.


I don’t know if that’s going to happen. I’ve no doubt that, if Steven Moffat had been the one to bring in a female Doctor, this is exactly how it would have gone down. A female Doctor would have been a superficial panacea to temporarily bring back a few eyeballs while nothing substantive would have changed. Chris Chibnall, at least, has shown a willingness to revamp and reimagine the show and do things differently. But I don’t know if he’s going to do enough to dispel the charge of staleness and justify another 13 years of Doctor Who. I don’t know if it’s possible to get out of the rut Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat have dug Doctor Who into over the last 13 years. There needs a properly radical and paradigm-shifting departure from the Doctor Who of Davies and Moffat to justify the show’s indefinite continued existence, and it remains to be seen whether Chris Chibnall is up to the job.

So what if Series 11 sucks, then? What happens if the new regime produces something that’s either boring or bad? Chibnall’s brave new era will be off to a terrible start, and it will be difficult to justify continuing the show, at the very latest, after Jodie Whittaker exits. If Series 11 is bad, the female Doctor experiment will be pronounced a failure and cancellation will be openly discussed. If Series 11 is simply boring, the initially high viewing figures borne on interest in the female Doctor Who will quickly dissipate and return to normal (ever-diminishing) levels, and cancellation will still be on the cards, albeit a few more years down the line. If the drastic changes needed to revive the show aren’t made and the show continues to be boring, viewing figures will continue their downward trajectory and, at some point, the show will be cancelled.

I don’t think that’s necessarily a controversial thing to say. At 13 years, Doctor Who has run long past the typical lifespan of a TV drama. That’s because it has the capacity to continually swap new actors in and because it doesn’t have a narrative “end point”. We could keep on following successive incarnations of the Doctor around forever, if we wanted. But that doesn’t mean that even a show like Doctor Who can’t reach its use-by date in the minds of the audience, especially if it doesn’t seem to change very much during its occupancy of its weekly time slot.

If that’s the case, I’m actually not sure that temporary cancellation would necessarily be a bad thing. Maybe it’s what needs to happen. Maybe a show like Doctor Who needs these occasional hiatuses when it gets into a stale rut it can’t break out of, to return years later from its spell in purgatory renewed and regenerated. Would anyone deny that the show’s cancellation after 1989 was, ultimately, for the best? If it weren’t for 1989, we wouldn’t have had 2005 and everything Doctor Who has been since it returned from its banishment. Maybe this version of Doctor Who — let’s call it Doctor Who 2.0 — has reached the end of its natural life and should be peacefully put to rest while it still has its dignity. Then, after an appropriate amount of time has passed — I would say 10 years at the least, long enough for people to miss it — it can come back a shiny, brand new show, Doctor Who 3.0, and preferably looking very different from how it did before, like it’s 2005 all over again.

Or maybe I’m wrong. There’s always that possibility, too. It’s just that I think it’s impossible that, without a radical overhaul, the show could do anything but continue to lose viewers from this point. Jodie Whittaker may well end up being a sensational, fan-favourite Doctor, but the whole female Doctor thing is ultimately an attention-grabbing gimmick that won’t, on its own, bring viewers back long-term. The show’s high water mark was the end of the Tenth Doctor’s era and the first two seasons of the Eleventh Doctor’s era. Since then viewing figures have been in freefall, especially during Capaldi’s era. It’s hard to see how the show could return to that level of popularity and cultural heft if it carries on just as it is, short of regenerating the Doctor back into David Tennant.

I might just end by saying that, out of the two alternatives I foresee — that Series 11 is bad or boring — I think it much more likely that Series 11 will simply be boring, “boring” here meaning that it might well be a competent, even brilliant, series of episodes, but that it’s still nothing we haven’t seen before, still Doctor-Who-as-usual. Chris Chibnall is accomplished enough a writer and showrunner for us to be confident that there’s no great danger of Series 11 being bad. I don’t think the man who made Broadchurch and Born and Bred is capable of writing bad television, or at least a whole series of bad television.

Or Chibnall could surprise us all and bring back Doctor Who this year as if it had been away for 16 years, not one.

My New Who Top 20

Here’s a celebratory photo of Matt Smith

Readers of Doctor Who TV have, over the past several weeks, engaged in a torturous exercise in determining the best stories of the Doctor Who revival to mark the revival’s 10-year anniversary. The results, aggregated from tens of thousands of votes, can be found here, with The Day of the Doctor claiming first place. The thing is, they’re wrong. I’ve taken the liberty of compiling the correct top 20 stories of the last ten years for the fandom’s benefit, since Doctor Who TV readers obviously can’t be trusted to get it right.

20. The Girl in the Fireplace — A commentary on the nature of time travel, this historical about the Madame de Pompadour with a creepy sci-fi twist is an emotional roller coaster, to be sure. 18th Century France is magnificently brought to life, while the repair droids were genuinely frightening. It is a perfectly-constructed story with one of the most poignant, heartstring-tugging endings Doctor Who has ever done. I’m disappointed I can’t rank it higher, but Doctor Who has me spoilt for choice!

19. Dalek — A brilliant introduction to the Daleks for a whole new audience. The complex and highly-charged relationship between the Doctor and the Daleks is explored in a compelling way, as is the effect on the Doctor of the mysterious Time War.

18. Planet of the Ood — Disturbing at times, but with a great, uplifting ending. The Ood are a really well-conceived alien species, and this episode is just a genuinely good story. This is one of my personal favourites from the revival, a dark and poetic exposition on weighty themes.

17. The Day of the Doctor — The 50th Anniversary special was a great, enjoyable romp saturated with fanservice (which is all much appreciated), but in many ways doesn’t make it to the status of a genuinely great story. There were certain problems with plotting and continuity issues, which can be overlooked in taking DOTD for what it was (a celebratory anniversary special), but which ultimately prevent it from rising to the level of the out-and-out greats, in my estimation. Which, of course, do not detract from the fact that DOTD is immensely enjoyable in its own right.

16. The Doctor’s Wife — I’ve always thought this was an excellent episode, but yet somewhat overrated, as I don’t gush over this one the way others do. The concept of the Doctor meeting the TARDIS in human form is nothing short of inspired, but I think the episode was perhaps a bit light on the actual interaction between the Doctor and the TARDIS/Sexy. The conflict with House was interesting, but I think it detracted from the screentime which ought to have been given to the Doctor and TARDIS. Nevertheless, a greatly enjoyable, top quality episode.

15. The Eleventh Hour — This is probably the best introductory episode the show has done in its 50-year history. This is an episode focussed on introducing the new leads, the Eleventh Doctor and Amy, and, to a lesser extent, Rory, with the alien threat playing something a subordinate role. Matt Smith and Karen Gillan cemented themselves in their new roles exceptionally; they certainly won me over completely. The story itself is gripping and brilliantly-paced, with the Doctor luminous in his new body.

14. The God Complex — One of the best stories from Series 6, and unjustifiably underrated. It’s creepy, claustrophobic, and has suspense in buckets. In addition, it boasts a cast of wonderful characters, including one of the notable could-have-been companions, Rita. I just love this episode for the way has me on the edge of my seat, wanting to look away but unable to tear my eyes away from the screen. It’s one of the best times Doctor Who has delved into the horror genre.

13. Midnight — For such a simple premise, this episode works exceptionally well. Actually, it works so well because of its simplicity. The episode consists of a group of people talking to each other inside a room for 40 minutes, a setting that facilitates focussing intensely upon those people and their psychology. What happens when you lock a group of people in a room with a monster they can’t see? That is the positively inspired premise of this episode, an idea that is explored mercilessly as a discussion of human psychology and behaviour. Who was the real monster in this story? This episode improves every time I watch it, and I can’t rate it high enough.

12. The Waters of Mars — This thrilling episode from the specials year starts off as a creepy but otherwise undistinguished monster story, but soon becomes something much more exciting as it is revealed that the Doctor has come to a group of people he knows to be doomed, and whom he knows he cannot save. The commentary on the nature of time, the burden of the time traveller, and of the Time Lord, is intelligent and wonderfully played out onscreen, especially due to the superlative acting on the part of David Tennant. Tennant’s “Time Lord Victorious” moment is one of the most arresting moments in Doctor Who history, perhaps the single moment in 51 years’ of Who (and counting…) in which we truly question the Doctor. We have always known there is more to this man than it seems, and here he is, in all his glory, Time Lord Victorious. It is an absolute triumph of writing.

11. The End of Time — David Tennant’s two-part swan song has its faults, but it is nonetheless a hugely enjoyable epic. It is full to the brim with great, memorable scenes (I love “I don’t want to go”, by the way), with great acting from all involved. John Simm as the Master is as much the star of this feature as David Tennant is. I love John Simm’s incarnation of the Master, and he is at his manic, deranged best in The End of Time. David Tennant truly digs deep to give his all here, one last hurrah before he departs the role for good, and, indeed, The End of Time is a fitting superb farewell to the Tenth Doctor (the beautiful Vale Decem sequence always gets me).

10. Vincent and the DoctorVincent has grown on me enormously since I first saw it. I was 15 or 16 when I first saw this episode and didn’t pick up on the underlying theme of depression, and “Vincent van Gogh versus the Giant Invisible Chicken” seemed like a bit of a lame story. I see now the genius behind Vincent, a bold discussion of the topic of mental illness. Vincent truly is perhaps the most beautiful story Doctor Who has ever done, although I agree with those who say that it might have worked better as a pure historical, without the big alien chicken.

9. Silence in the Library/The Forest of the Dead — This is another one that has grown on me after repeated rewatches. Another Moffat triumph, I think this two-parter is a masterpiece entirely deserving of the praise it gets. Beautifully composed, superbly acted from a cast of memorable, endearing characters, it’s another contribution of Moffat to the legacy of Who classics. The only thing wrong with this story were the props of the corpses in the space suits, which, rather than looking menacing, actually looked slightly comical. Nevertheless, it doesn’t mar the fact that this is an outstanding, highly-rewatchable story, especially given that much worse crimes were committed in Classic Who.

8. The Girl Who Waited — For a long time I wasn’t sure if I liked this one or not. There are others where have I come away with the same impression, like Vincent. I’ve come to realise that, whenever this happens, it’s usually a good indication that I’ve just witnessed a genuinely great story. Stories that are an emotional rollercoaster, like this one and Vincent, are difficult to digest, and hard to rewatch without having put plenty of space between the last watch. The Girl Who Waited, for someone really emotionally invested in the characters of Amy and Rory, like I had become by then, is an emotional rollercoaster, difficult to rewatch. It’s a really beautiful, tragic story that pushes all the right emotional buttons. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

7. The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang — Through much of the nonsense in the Series 5 finale, we have a series finale remarkably different, and in many ways much more ambitious, than anything Russell T. Davies had done before in his finales. Although I rate the Series 1 finale higher, Pandorica is my favourite finale of the revival. It employs the utterly ludicrous (yet utterly awesome) timey-wimey plot devices that Steven Moffat revels in to create an amazing, gripping finale that clearly distinguishes the Moffat style from Russell T. Davies’ more predictable formula. I loved the way the Doctor brought about his own salvation through Amy; that scene in which the Doctor sits by sleeping little Amy’s bedside is beautiful, and the scene in which Amy brings back the Doctor at her wedding wonderfully ebullient. Very Moffat.

6. The Impossible Astronaut/The Day of the Moon — This one is, I think, my favourite Doctor Who story of the revival, if not of all. The setting is wonderful, the cinematography is outstanding, the plot is captivating, the villains (the Silence) are terrifying, the cliffhanger was torturous (in a good way), the genre aspects were well-executed and effective. Matt Smith continues in top form as the Doctor. I particularly love the scene in which the Doctor and River Song confront the Silence in their hideout thingy — another one of those fist-pumping “Doctor moments” that make the spine shiver. Just awesome in every way, this story is an ambitious, wonderfully enjoyable epic opener to Series 6 which set up the rest of that excellent series perfectly.

5. Mummy on the Orient Express — Easily the best story from Series 8, it is, unfortunately, the only Capaldi story to make it into my top 20 (although Flatline came close). You’ll notice the top end of this list disproportionately features two-part stories; that’s because I generally think the two-part format works much better than 45 minute single episodes, with a few exceptions. However, Mummy is a superb self-contained episode that works perfectly in the 45 minute time frame. It bears many similarities to The Chimes of Midnight — both involve the Doctor having to solve a deadly mystery in a race against the clock, where there is clearly some supernatural force at work. Both are amazingly effective in executing their concepts, and the production brings Mummy to life spectacularly. Needless to say, Jamie Mathieson is shaping up to be Moffat’s Moffat with gems like Mummy and Flatline.

4. Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways — Although Pandorica is my favourite finale of the revival, I rate Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways highest. Bad Wolf is so well composed; it does something no finale since has arguably been able to do, which is to execute a plot of epic magnitude (as suitable for a series finale) without losing something along the way — the Series 1 finale is basically flawless without being formulaic and predictable. It’s a perfect finale. It pulls the trick favoured in a lot of the early Classic serials in Hartnell’s, Troughton’s and, to an extent, Pertwee’s eras of putting the characters in a seemingly unremarkable setting before gradually revealing more and more, until all becomes clear, and the stakes are truly revealed. Eccleston’s regeneration was brilliant, if a bit awkwardly shoehorned on.

3. Human Nature/The Family of Blood — This two-parter is a masterpiece of storytelling and production. The best Doctor Who stories are the ones that can be appreciated as spectacular drama in their own right and beyond the confines of the Doctor Who franchise. This story is certainly one such story, as are the other two stories in my top 3. Human Nature is not just magnificent Doctor Who, it’s magnificent drama, and magnificent television, even. Apart from being a great piece of drama, it’s also a great work of art, one of the few times New Who has been as experimental and creative as the Hartnell and McCoy eras — and did so excellently.

2. Blink — Could anyone who doesn’t think Blink is amazing please stand up? No? No one? Okay, Blink has an exalted reputation, something that generally tends to lead to the subject of said reputation becoming overrated (see The Caves of Androzani) — but not in this case. Blink really is an outstanding, perfectly-crafted piece of television. I’ll admit it isn’t as good after several dozen rewatches, but, even then, it’s far and away better than the vast majority of the entire run of Doctor Who, from An Unearthly Child to Last Christmas. The secret of its success is its brilliantly-conceived monsters, the Weeping Angels, but the story and the characters that are built around the Angels are what raise it above the common run of Doctor Who stories and into the ether of classicdom.

1. The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances — Perhaps a controversial choice, but I know I’m right. My earliest memory of Doctor Who, at age 10, was of shaking in terror at those frightening gasmask-wearing zombies, but yet unable to tear my eyes away from the screen. I didn’t sleep that night, and I contracted a lifelong fear of gas masks. That was exactly the effect the producers were going for in creating this terrifying two-parter, and I’m living proof that they succeeded with billowing colours (as were a generation of similarly scarred pre-adolescents). Everything about this story is perfectly carried out, from the cinematography, to the plot, to the pacing, to the villain, to the characterisation (this story also gave us Captain Jack Harkness, after all). It was New Who’s first and finest contribution to the halls of Doctor Who classics, proof to the sceptical devotees of the original series that these new kids with their new-fangled CGI and their proper budget could create genuinely good Doctor Who on par with Genesis of the Daleks, The Caves of Androzani, City of Death, or anything from the plinths of the Classic Who pantheon. Justly revered.